Even With an Unpopular President, Progressives May Have a Hard Time Reviving the Anti-War Movement

From abortion access to voting rights, progressive causes are gaining traction as part of the broader anti-Trump resistance movement. Why isn’t anti-war activism one of them?

Kimberly Joyner
8 min readNov 15, 2017

At a time of deepening partisan division, one of the few things progressives and Donald Trump supporters seemed to agree on during last year’s presidential race was that Hillary Clinton’s hawkish worldview would lead the United States into another major war. Then-candidate Trump routinely attacked the former Secretary of State for her support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as her leadership during the 2011 Libyan civil conflict. Similarly, during the presidential race progressives balked at efforts by Clinton’s campaign to ramp up tensions with Russia following reports by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government masterminded the cyber attack against the Democratic National Committee’s email accounts. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein even went so far as to claim Clinton’s aggressive rhetoric on Russia made her foreign policy more dangerous than Trump’s.

At the time, Trump’s criticisms of Clinton seemed to reflect a real ideological shift among GOP voters away from neoconservatism toward a more isolationist and anti-interventionist foreign policy. But during the past 10 months of the Trump presidency, there has been little organized response to the president’s ongoing expansion of the U.S. military presence in Central Africa and the Middle East, or his aggression towards North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Whatever qualms Trump supporters shared with progressive activists about America’s wars seemed to have been yoked to their shared dislike of Clinton. Once Trump won the presidential election, his supporters began to view his bellicose rhetoric as both refreshing and necessary to fight terrorism.

Conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren praises President Trump’s decisive action on Syria a week after the U.S. launched dozens of cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Airbase.

While Clinton’s foreign policy critics on the right mostly used anti-war rhetoric to exploit weaknesses in her candidacy in an anti-establishment political climate, her critics on the left did represent long-standing grievances with the Democratic Party over its expansion of the war on terror under President Obama (Obama had run for president in part on his opposition to the Iraq war). In fact, some point directly to the anti-war movement’s co-optation by Democratic Party elites in the late 2000s as the source of the movement’s eventual decline.

But the inability of anti-war activists to take advantage of anti-Trump sentiment and rebuild a national movement suggests there are bigger problems for progressives than becoming too entangled with Democratic campaigns. As the style and scale of warfare continue to change in ways that make wars harder to organize against, and as cultural attitudes harden against criticism of the military, progressives face an urgent need for new messaging around anti-war causes.

A Demobilizing Force

The early aughts anti-war movement grew out of opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its alignment with the Democratic Party in election years helped anti-war activists enter the political mainstream. But in a blog post about his book, “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11,” author Michael Heaney argues that the alignment between grassroots activists and party loyalists also caused a shift in priorities for the anti-war movement, from holding all power accountable for crimes of war related to the invasion of Iraq to electing anti-Bush Democrats to office:

Key to this dynamic is the fact that many activists, organizations, and legislators identify both with the Democratic Party and with social movements. We find that as these identities compete with one another inside people’s minds and inside the decision-making arenas of organizations, partisan identities win out more often than not, thus putting social movements in a precarious position. As a result, social movements often find that they are co-opted, or simply left out in the cold, in the aftermath of their collaboration with major political parties.

To Heaney, the problem for anti-war activists isn’t simply that political parties can co-opt the energy and enthusiasm of social movements for their own electoral goals, or that these parties, once in power, tend to abandon the movements that helped them get there. It’s also the lack of sustained pushback presidents and political parties in power face when they do pursue policies that contradict their stated goals.

“The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity,” Heaney said in a news release according to NPR. “Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.”

One could argue that as the first black president, Barack Obama was viewed as such an important cultural icon that progressives were hesitant to criticize him using the sort of language and protest imagery they had when President Bush’s job approval numbers began to plummet. And they probably lacked a significant audience on the liberal left for their grievances anyway. Obama’s job approval numbers rarely fell below 80% among Democratic voters.

But in expanding America’s wars beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama committed the U.S. to a different kind of warfare than what Americans were used to — one that was not limited to a particular country or group and one that did not require as many ground troops— and in effect, one that was harder to organize against. As Azmia Magane recounted back in June, while President Obama aimed to “reduce boots on the ground (and thus American casualties)” with the use of drone strikes, such technology has allowed the U.S. to inflict more violence on more people, leading in some cases to thousands of civilian deaths.

Another development during the Obama years that likely contributed to the decline of the anti-war movement was the fracturing of the left over the role of force in humanitarian crises abroad. During the Arab Spring uprisings, the Obama administration faced international pressure to respond to state repression of pro-democracy protesters in Libya and Syria. When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s government was suspected of killing unarmed civilians, the United States joined NATO allies in a multinational military effort to topple Gaddafi’s regime. While there were some protests in the U.S. opposing President Obama’s decision to commit the U.S. to enforcing the NATO-led fly zone — lawmakers on the Hill seized on the pockets of backlash by suing the the president for violating the War Powers Resolution—many saw the Obama administration acting in accordance with international humanitarian norms in hopes of preventing another Rwanda.

To be sure, ideological disagreements over if and how the U.S. should respond to human tragedies abroad won’t stop anti-war activists from opposing Trump should he throw the U.S. into another conflict. But as polling on the public’s views of the April 7 airstrikes against Syria suggests, activists are unlikely to find as many allies within the Democratic Party as they had during the Bush years if the Trump administration takes military actions that appear justified to more than a third of the party’s voters.

The War at Home

The challenges facing progressives in rebuilding the anti-war movement for the Trump era are also apparent from a cultural point of view: Americans generally do not like to question or criticize people in the U.S. military. According to FiveThirtyEight, the military consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most trusted institutions. And as backlash to the recent NFL player protests showed, the military’s prominence in American popular culture is largely under-scrutinized.

While the NFL player protests began last year as a demonstration against police brutality in black communities, President Trump and White House officials had quite a bit of success reframing the protests as an attack on the American flag, and as an insult to those who serve in the armed forces.

While conservatives saw NFL players who kneeled in protest during the national anthem ceremony as engaging in a divisive political stunt, the decision to play the national anthem at all during NFL games was hardly acknowledged or challenged as a political act by progressives who supported the players. Moreover, many defenses of the players from the left tended to retreat from the idea that the players really were protesting America — ultimately disavowing a broader critique of state-sanctioned racial violence as a core feature of American empire. In essence, most defenses of the players ceded ground to the right’s view that the military is, or ought to be, an apolitical institution by virtue of it representing the national, collective interests — even those of ‘ungrateful’ black NFL players.

In their 2011 analysis of the decline of the early aughts anti-war movement, NPR notes that the harsh treatment Vietnam veterans received by anti-war activists when they returned home from the war continues to haunt supporters of anti-war causes, who fear their support will be read as ‘against the troops’. And in the early years of the war on terror, President Bush repeatedly invoked the view that the nation’s foreign policy critics were ultimately siding with the nation’s enemies. Based on the success conservatives continue to have in shaming progressives for being “against the troops”, it does not seem progressives have a compelling alternative message on how Americans ought to view the military.

Toward an Economic Populism?

For all of the challenges anti-war activism faces in the Trump era, there is hope that a renewed push for economic populism could spur interest in challenging the U.S.’s military entanglements by opposing increases in military spending, or by demanding a war tax. Recently, the Senate approved by an overwhelming majority $700 billion in defense spending. With the left’s primary focus on expanding the welfare state at home, and the right’s waning appetite for nation-building abroad, anti-war activists could see more openness to their causes if they are framed in terms of cutting exorbitant spending and reinvesting in American communities.

Still, it is unlikely that anti-war activism will return to the days when anyone from little-known grassroots activists to major movie stars would descend on the National Mall to demand an end to the U.S. atrocities in Iraq. Reframing issues around military spending or taxing could keep anti-war activists relevant in public policy discussions, but it probably won’t have the big rallying effect progressives long for from years past.



Kimberly Joyner

I write about American politics, current events, and gender/feminism in TV and film. Based in Atlanta, GA. Email: kimberlyjoyner87@gmail.com